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Violence robs voters the right to choose their leaders freely

OPINION
By Irungu Houghton | March 8th 2021
Irungu Houghton, Amnesty International Executive Director.

Even before the dust settles on the Matungu, Kiamokama and Kabuchai by-elections, a national date with electoral hell looms in 2022. Despite clear laws, procedures and seasoned politicians, the March 4 by-elections seemed to intentionally act out rather than avoid most of the electoral offences.

Article 81 of the Constitution states all elections must be free from violence, intimidation or bribery. The Constitution and at least five laws including the 2011 Acts on Elections, Political Parties and the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission and the 2016 Acts on the Election Laws and the Elections Offences directly govern the electoral process.

Voter obstruction, assault or bribery are clear offences under our laws. Campaigning within 48 hours of the election and in the vicinity of the polling stations is an offence.

Assaulting the staff of the electoral commission is also an offence. Tampering with ballots or ballot boxes or using excessive and disproportionate force to uphold the integrity of an election is likewise unacceptable. These election offences carry clear consequences. Convictions can attract fines of over Sh2 million or terms not exceeding six years or both.

As I await a comprehensive statement from the electoral commission, my preliminary assessment is that the by-elections are the best example so far of how an election could go terribly wrong. As the dust settles, videos of Sh2 million being wrestled from Senator Malala and a former Cabinet Secretary slapping an IEBC official in a polling station, while another was frogmarched against her will have gone viral.

In Matungu constituency, Kakamega Senator Cleophas Malala clashed with Homa Bay Woman Representative Gladys Wanga after she was reportedly found dishing out cash to voters at Bulimbo Primary School.

Senator Samson Cherargei, MPs Didmas Barasa of Kimilili, Wilson Kogo of Chesumei and Nelson Koech of Belgut, Oscar Sudi of Kapseret, aspirant Nyandusi Nyakeremba among others have been arrested on accusations of voter bribery, violence and other malpractices.

The conduct of these state officers as well as the wannabes this week has probably buried the term “honourable” for most of us still paying attention to the political class. It is not just the bribery or violence. It is the myopic view they have of themselves, their parties, and the public.

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Incoming Kabuchai MP Majimbo Kalasinga ruined his otherwise magnanimous acceptance speech by referring to his Ford Kenya party as a party for Luhya unity rather than a party with a national ambition. If I had been close in that moment, I would have interrupted and handed him a copy of the Political Parties Act pointing to the section that says, “Every party shall have a national character, promote and uphold national unity.” Perhaps he could read this before he is sworn in.

A friend compared political elections to school examinations. Parents, teachers, and school management committees have a year to prepare for examinations. Examination day is for students and invigilators only.

Imagine, if we as parents, teachers and school managers lingered around the examination halls campaigning for our students on the day of the examination? If it is this simple for primary schools, why is not for those that oversee national governance and the economy?

There are reasons we have clear campaigning periods and restrict access to voters on the day of an election. It is to allow voters to independently reflect on all they have heard and, to freely choose the candidate that best addresses their interests.

The sight of Senators and MPs leading the violence and bribery across the three by-elections must be condemned by the public, peers, party leaders and the public.

The electoral commission and law enforcement agencies must fairly but decisively establish who has committed malpractices and apply the law without discrimination. New sanctions must be sought.

Fining politicians Sh2 million seems ineffectual when it is clear they carry this amount of money in one bag on a single day. Within the next few months, elections will take place in Machakos, Garissa, Bondeni and Nyandarua.

Given this weeks’ disgrace, new strategies are needed by parties, IEBC, EACC and law enforcement agencies to prevent a repeat of this soon and in 2022. A public message must be delivered to those that seek our mandate. Violence, bribery and intimidation robs us, the voters, of the only thing that really matters in an election, the right to freely choose our leaders.

-The writer is Amnesty International Executive Director. He writes in his personal capacity.

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